Analyzing Your App Using Game Thinking: Part 2 – Complexity

In this series of articles, I am taking a look at how innovators and entrepreneur developing non-game apps and other products through the application of Amy Jo Kim’s Game Thinking process can analyze their work using some of the factors that game designers use to determine that the games they are developing are delivering the desired player experience. Last week I discussed how to analyze an app in terms of its Difficulty. This week I will focus on its Complexity.

Complexity: The number of rules or game elements that the player must understand and interact with.

Complexity and Difficulty can be interrelated, as it may require a high degree of skill to memorize a vast number of game rules or maneuver around a multitude of obstacles to achieve a game’s goals, but the two factors are not synonymous. For example, it may be very difficult get past a single obstacle, and achieving a goal may require a doing a number of actions correctly, each one of which is easy to perform.

Here is a chart for distinguishing between Difficulty and Complexity:

The first rule of game design is that a game should be easy to learn but difficult to master. The “hard to master” component of the rule means that it has high depth, a factor that we will look at in a later article in this series.
The “easy to learn” component means that the game has low complexity, because the higher the complexity, the harder it is to learn how to play the game.

It’s not just the number of rules alone that can make a game complex, but how difficult they are for the player to understand. In order to apply rules and make decisions about how to interact with game element, the player needs information about the game state. However, a cluttered or non-intuitive interface can contribute to a game being too complex.

Yet another problem that can increase a game’s complexity is the player not being able to plan many actions ahead or not being able to understand the consequences of the actions that are taken. An overly complex game design can have so many different elements determining the outcome of a player’s actions that the player may not be able to comprehend all of the relationships between the elements in the game system.

Of course, these same design issues can adversely affect the user experience of any type of software application, not just games.  When an app is too complex, users may feel like their actions will not allow them to get the desired utility out of the app, either because they don’t know what to do or what effect their actions will have.

So, how do you find out if the app is too complex?  Ask your users during playtesting!  “How simple or complex was the app to use?”  “Did you understand the instructions?” “Was there any time while you were using the app that you did not know what to do next, or how to do it?”

If your playtesters found the app too complex to use, game designers have come up with a number of remedies.

  • Providing a tutorial that helps the user learn how to use an app.  A well-made tutorial or other form of automated assistance can mean the difference between users bailing out at the Onboarding Stage and continuing onward to the Habit-building Stage.
  • Provide additional information and information about using your app outside of the app, such as through a website or a customer service line.
  • Allowing new users to get utility from the app by using only a few basic features at the beginning, and then drawing their attention to secondary or more advanced features as they become more experienced with the app.  This, along with establishing the right level of difficulty of those features, can provide a smooth learning curve that will get them through the Onboarding Stage and well into the Habit-building Stage.
  • Reducing the amount of information or number of elements that must be considered when making decisions about what actions to perform.
  • Reducing the number of relationships between different app elements (e.g.,  Feature A affects Feature B, which affects Feature C, which affects Feature D).
  • Reducing the amount of attention swapping the user has to get information from more than one screen or metric to make a decision about what action to perform next.
  • Providing information about the effect of an action before the user takes that action.
  • Combining sequential or related actions together into a single action.
  • Automate some app features so that the user does not have to continuously control or monitor them.

Still, a game designer may not want to reduce a game’s complexity to its bare minimum, as that may also strip away any opportunities players have to experiment or exercise creative control. So, a designer’s goal may not be to create a game with the minimum complexity, as that will restrict a game’s depth, but the right level of complexity.

To do that, we also need to ensure that the game has the right amount of depth, which we will discuss in next week’s article.

About David Mullich

I am a video game producer who has worked at Activision, Disney, Cyberdreams, EduWare, The 3DO Company and the Spin Master toy company. I am currently a game design and production consultant, a game design instructor at ArtCenter College of Design, and co-creator of the Boy Scouts of America Game Design Merit Badge. At the 2014 Gamification World Congress in Barcelona, I was rated the 14th ranking "Gamification Guru" in social media.

Posted on April 24, 2017, in Game Design and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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